In 2015, Patagonia told an inconvenient truth. “Because denim is filthy business,” read the launch video for the brand’s line of jeans. Yet like many of the rebels and working-class heroes who’ve popularized denim — Steve McQueen, James Dean, Bruce Springsteen, Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club — part of the fabric’s charm comes from its old-school flaws. It’s an organic fabric, imperfect but warmly authentic, rough but durable. We don’t want our denim to be filthy, yet we’ve always worn it to seem that little bit dirty.
Unfortunately, denim production is filthy. While it’s hard to imagine a world without denim, it’s hard to ignore the disastrous impact the fabric’s production has on our world. “The water use alone makes denim incredibly unsustainable,” explains Dio Kurazawa, founding partner of sustainability consultancy The Bear Scouts and Denim Director for trend forecasting agency WGSN. “Considering the water used on cotton-growing, dyeing, washing, and finishing, it’s quite a strain on our environment.”
Fast fashion is said to be the world’s second-biggest polluter. When you consider it takes an estimated 1,800 gallons of water to make just a single pair of jeans, you can start to see why. Add to that the fact 450 million pairs of jeans are sold annually in the US alone, and it’s clear our jeans are a catastrophe for our warming and poisoned planet. Yet it’s hard to imagine a world without denim — we’re addicted to it. Addiction programs tell us that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, but outside support is also vital. Thankfully, some people are already on the case.
Portland-based Olderbrother takes special care to source sustainable materials for every part of its jeans. The denim is made from organic Japanese cotton dyed with organic indigo before being distressed using a natural, plant-based enzyme. While the jeans’ $230 price tag makes the product relatively niche, online fashion powerhouse ASOS has taken a similarly thoughtful approach to its sourcing of materials through a partnership with Spanish textile recycler Recover, which also assisted on Matthew Williams’ ALYX Visual sub-brand. Recover helps ASOS source used denim fiber that is then integrated with virgin cotton, making garments from the ASOS Recycled Denim collection the fashion equivalent of a Toyota Prius.
But sustainability goes much deeper than the collection of raw materials. There is also a human element. Unless workers are treated (and paid) fairly and with respect, the production of new garments will lead to cut corners and more waste. That’s where brands such as Bleu de Cocagne come in. Based in Toulouse, France, the boutique brand places artisan craftsmanship — like the 500-year-old local technique of dyeing with woad — at the core of its constructions. Garments such as the kimono scarf jacket might not be cheap, but it’s a high-quality product with a low environmental impact that utilizes centuries-old traditional techniques. It’s both a heritage and future-facing garment.
Once a fabric has been woven and its patterns are sewn, the next — and filthiest — steps in the denim production process are the washing and dyeing phases. The point at which jeans take on their rich indigo color is also where the most water and chemicals are used. For brands such as Reformation, however, this step offers the most opportunity for change. Last year, the Los Angeles-based fast fashion brand launched “#refjeans,” a line of eco-conscious denim faded with eco-wash techniques that reduce water usage to 230 gallons over the lifecycle of the jeans, which in industry terms is a drop in the ocean.
While Reformation’s sustainable jeans are only available for women, G-Star RAW is bringing sustainable denim to all consumers at scale. Recently, the brand partnered with dye company DyStar, fabric maker Artistic Milliners, and Vietnamese factory Saitex to launch “the most sustainable jean ever.” The dyeing process reduces chemical use by 70 percent compared with standard manufacturing, and the washing process discharges no wastewater into the local environment, with 98 percent of it being recycled and reused. While these processes debuted on just one pair of jeans for Spring/Summer 2018, it’s not hard to see the effect this approach could eventually have on the industry at large given G-Star’s size as a brand.
However, the story of sustainable denim doesn’t end once a garment is manufactured and sold. “Great clothing should last a lifetime. You should own items that are valuable enough to you that you want to upkeep the good material and see it through a long life,” says Timothy Grindle, owner of denim retailer Canoe Club. “If denim is good enough to be retired, found by a new owner, and given a whole new life, you aren’t going to find a better story of sustainability.”
However, there comes a point at which even denim eventually breaks down. And once anything indigo-dyed is officially dead, a whole other dimension of filth-fighting begins. On the industrial side, organizations such as Evrnu break down old textiles (like discarded denim, for example) and revitalize them as post-consumer materials. The Seattle-based company worked with Levi’s in 2016 to create the first pair of jeans from renewed fiber — in this case, from five old cotton T-shirts. Considering H&M’s publicly stated goal of using only recycled (or sustainably sourced) materials by 2030, technologies such as Evrnu’s can potentially give denim a sustainable future.